Agent Orange was an herbicide the American military used to clear leaves and other vegetation during the Vietnam War. More than 12 million gallons were sprayed in Vietnam, according to the Aspen Institute.
The name Agent Orange comes from the colored stripes on the 55-gallon drums it was kept in.
Reports of potential health problems due to Agent Orange exposure started emerging in the late 1970s. The herbicide has now been connected to dozens of health problems in United States veterans including:
- chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
- other forms of cancer
- Parkinson’s disease
The Red Cross, as reported by the Aspen Institute, also estimates more than 3 million Vietnamese people have developed health complications, including 150,000 birth defects, due to Agent Orange contamination.
Researchers have found that the average age of CLL diagnosis in people exposed to Agent Orange was 61 versus 72 for people who were not exposed.
When adjusted for age, it was found that the hazard ratio of developing CLL after Agent Orange exposure was 1.9, meaning people exposed were almost twice as likely to develop CLL as those not exposed.
Agent Orange is linked to the development of a number of other types of cancers as well. It’s thought that alterations in cellular signaling are the underlying cause for cancer cell growth. Cellular signaling is the ability of your cells to communicate with each other.
Agent Orange exposure is linked to a number of other cancers and illnesses in addition to CLL. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs links it to the following:
- bladder cancer
- Hodgkin’s disease
- multiple myeloma
- non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- prostate cancer
- lung cancer
- other respiratory tract cancers
- some types of soft tissue sarcomas
CLL typically does not cause early symptoms. It’s often caught after receiving a blood test for an unrelated issue. As the disease progresses, it may cause symptoms such as:
If you have symptoms of CLL, your doctor will likely review your medical history first to look for risk factors such as a family history of CLL. They will also likely do a physical exam to look for swollen lymph nodes and other signs of disease.
If they suspect you may have leukemia, they will order other tests such as the following:
- Blood test. During this test, a blood sample will be taken to make a blood smear to look at under a microscope to look for evidence of irregular lymphocytes. A complete blood count can measure levels of your blood cells. Having more than
10,000lymphocytes per cubic millimeter strongly suggests CLL, according to the American Cancer Society. Lymphoctyes are a type of white blood cells.
- Bone marrow biopsy. Your doctor may want to extract a sample of bone marrow to examine the cells under a microscope. They’ll extract a small sample of bone marrow by inserting a long needle into one of your bones.
- Flow cytometry. Flow cytometry uses a machine to examine your lymphocytes to look for markers of CLL.
- Imaging tests. Imaging techniques such as a CT scan or ultrasound may be used to look for signs of swollen lymph tissue.
- Cytogenetics. Your blood and bone marrow cells may be examined in a lab to look for certain gene mutations common in people with CLL.
- Watchful waiting. No treatment is administered unless the disease progresses.
- Chemotherapy. A drug therapy that uses chemicals to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy also damages healthy cells.
- Targeted therapy. A drug therapy that involves taking medications that can identify cancer cells and attack them. Targeted therapy tends to leave your healthy cells largely unaffected.
- Radiation therapy. High-energy radiation is used to kill cancer cells and reduce pain related to swollen lymph nodes or a swollen spleen.
- Immunotherapy. A form of cancer treatment that stimulates your immune cells to target cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy with bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow cells are transplanted from a donor to replace the cells damaged during chemotherapy. Your own cells can also be used by extracting them before receiving chemotherapy.
How to get help
Veterans who may have come into contact with Agent Orange in the 1960s and 1970s are eligible for a free Agent Orange Registry health exam from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The exam is based on your recollection of service, not your military records.
Eligible Veterans include those who:
- served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975
- served on riverboat patrol or swift boats on the inland Vietnamese waterways
- served on vessels operating within 12 nautical miles from the borders of the waters of Cambodia or Vietnam
- served in or near the Korean DMZ between 1967 and 1971.
- served or provided security on Royal Thai Air Force Bases between 1961 and 1975
- were stationed on some small Army installations in Thailand as a military police officer or a military occupational specialist
- flew or worked on C-123 aircraft between 1969 and 1986
- may have been exposed during testing, transportation, or spraying of herbicides for military purposes
If you have health problems related to Agent Orange exposure, you can file a disability claim.
Agent Orange was an herbicide used primarily during the Vietnamese War. Exposure is linked to a wide range of health conditions including CLL and other cancers. People exposed to CLL seem to be almost twice as likely to develop CLL than people not exposed.
Veterans who may have come into contact with Agent Orange can receive a free health exam from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. You may qualify for disability if you have a health condition linked to Agent Orange exposure.